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Created in 2011 by President Thein Sein, the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC) is supposed to investigate rights violations and make recommendations to the government. It was reconstituted to an 11-member body in 2014 after the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission Law was enacted.
But activists and lawmakers have long criticised its lack of action and independence. Most commissioners are former junta-era officials and academics, who have defended their work by pointing to the commission’s limited mandate. Civil society organisations have urged the National League for Democracy (NLD) government to reform the commission and open it up to working with civil society and engaging with the public.
In October, four commissioners were forced to resign after they had encouraged two abused teenage maids to accept compensation money from the perpetrators, a family who own Ava Tailor Shop in downtown Rangoon. Since then, the NLD government has not replaced the commissioner nor suggested further reform.
Myanmar Now interviewed Yu Lwin Aung, a former colonel who served 27 years in the military before becoming director general at the Ministry of Labour. He has been looking into complaint over the conditions in the prison system, in particular following protests at Mingyan Prison in Mandalay Region.
Question: How does the MNHRC function that it only has seven remaining members?
Answer: The Myanmar National Human Rights commission has five divisions: a Training and Education Division; a Policy and Legal Division; an International Relations Division; a Human Rights Protection Division; and a Management and Financial Division. The heads of each division has to jointly manage another division that is without a commissioner. For example, while I am the head of the Management and Finance Division, I have to jointly manage Human Rights Protection Division [with another commissioner]. So, the section heads are having more workloads for two divisions. But we can still manage our work well.
Q: You say you can manage the work well. Is that because the complaints are decreasing?
A: The complaints are declining at the moment. Maybe it is because the government has set up complaint sections for respective departments. Manpower and capacity balance is important for our commission to be able to tackle human right abuse cases.
Q: What lessons did the commission draw from the Ava Tailor shop abuse case?
A: Criminal cases must be tackled in accordance with the laws. While the commission intervened in the Ava Tailor shop case from a social perspective, the case also concerned a criminal act. Because these two actions were not separately handled, some complications happened. After this case, we reminded ourselves to seek ideas from all commission members in order to deal with complaints in a transparent way.
Q: How do you view the assassination of lawyer U Ko Ni? Why is the commission not involved in the inquiry?
A: Since this is a criminal investigation, we are not involved. But I am truly saddened by the loss of such a legal scholar. I don’t know whether this was related to a personal grudge or carried out as an assignment from somebody. Since this however, violated someone’s right to life this is definitely a case of human rights violation. Like it or not, we all have to resolve it within the framework of the laws. But now that the culprits are in custody and due procedures are underway, we won’t be handling this case.
Q: The commission has been criticised as it comprises only former junta-era military officers and civil servants. How would you respond to that?
A: Attitude is more important than the background of commission members. I am also an ex-military officer, as well as a former director general at a government department. I concentrated on public welfare during these periods. I will also do the same in this commission as I could work for the people.
I have been put in charge of the Complaints Division since two months. In the recent case of the Myingyan Prison [riot], our commission found there were human right abuses. Prisoners did not get effective medical treatment, food, accommodation and other facilities. We reported our findings to the Ministry of Home Affairs. The new prison superintendent had closed the prison clinic introduced by his predecessors and he invited only nurses instead of doctors for medical treatment. But the prisoners did not get enough medicine. They had to wait in queue for the nurse who was often absent. Ailing prisoners never got medicines sent by the family members after prison staff took them for examining. The prisoners had to buy the medicine again at double the price with their own money after it was given to prison officers. The Ministry of Home Affairs took action against such rights abuses. This is one of the successes for our commission.
Q: Did you intervene in this case to win back public trust?
A: No, we just did our duty. We did it not just to gain public trust. When I was a young military officer, I punished a soldier who stole a chicken from a villager and I asked him to seek pardon from the owner. I have pursued justice since that time.
The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners was also satisfied with the commission’s works on right abuses cases in Myingyan Prison. It was a milestone for the commission. We will need to wait and see other results. I believed we could win public trust by handling human rights abuse cases in this way.
Q: Some critics say the commission is not independent as it is appointed by the government. What is your response?
A: We are independent. We do not need to ask permission to conduct an investigation, we only need to send a prior report about our specific mission. The previous government also never blocked our work. Our process is better under the present administration. Moreover, authorities never interfere in our process. We openly report our findings which is very helpful for the respective ministries.
Q: How has the commission’s work changed since the NLD government took power?
A: There has been no significant change for our commission. There were certain restrictions to visit prisons during the previous government. For example, we were allowed to visit prisons, but not detention centres. Actually, the previous administration later relaxed some restrictions. The present government has supported our work as many party leaders are former political prisoners.